Sex, addicts and religious cults


The Master (MA). Director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern. 137 minutes

Navy personnel on sabbatical sculpt the form of a spread-eagled woman from sand. One stands by, leering, before suddenly pouncing on the prone figure and humping it extravagantly. This is a key character insight: Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is preoccupied with sex, and inclined to regard women as objects of gratification.

But Freddie is also disturbed. He is oblivious to the bemusement of his onlookers, and moments later he wades into the shallows of the sea to unabashedly masturbate. It is likely that his experiences in the war (World War II) have exacerbated, but are not the root cause of, his obviously disordered psyche. American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is in large part an ambiguous and unsettling portrait of this bizarre loner.

Freddie falls in with a cult known as The Cause, led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). Freddie initially wins Lancaster's favour thanks to his knack for concocting robust chemical cocktails that appeal to the cult leader's proclivity for booze. Their relationship gradually takes on a kind of symbiotic and mutually destructive father-son dimension. Each man has his own charisma, and holds the other in thrall.

The Master, truth be told, suffers from some infuriatingly, deliberately oblique plotting, which makes its two-plus hours feel bloated rather than epic. But if you set aside expectations of clarity and resolution, and bask in The Master's exquisite period detail, director of photography Mihai Malaimare Jr's magnificent cinematography, and the gorgeously ear-grinding score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, The Master is a captivating cinematic treat.

Bask, too, in the joy of watching Phoenix and Hoffman — great actors both — share the screen. Watch the tics and twists of Freddie/Phoenix's skewiff face as Lancaster subjects him to a sadistic game of 20 Questions; a pseudo-psychological process designed to cement the pastor-protégé hierarchy. Later, watch Lancaster/Hoffman simmer then explode at a cynic's questions, silencing dissent with fury. This is top shelf acting.

Lancaster's human foibles threaten to undo him. His alcoholism, like Freddie's sex addiction, is a pothole on the path to purity. A latter revision of his teachings allows for subjectivity where previously there was absolutism, to the chagrin of at least one particularly devout disciple (Dern). There are hints that for Lancaster, money and power are central, ulterior motives. His pious wife (Adams) struggles to keep him on the straight and narrow.

The film rebukes blind religious faith. I've never been a member of a cult, but I do have limited fringe experience of a particularly fervent pentecostal church. The film's portrayal of cult life chimes disturbingly with that experience. The cult members are attracted not just to the charismatic leader's promise of meaning, and to the possibility of belonging, but also to the eerie comfort of having someone else do their thinking.

Freddie, meanwhile, remains an enigma. He goes to great lengths to prove himself worthy of Lancaster, and of The Cause. But ultimately he is utterly individualistic, finding meaning only in self-gratification. The film conflates his manipulation of women with Lancaster's manipulation of cult members. The plot may be thin, but Anderson gets a lot of mileage out of tracing the similarities between these ostensibly different men.

Post script: Paul Thomas Anderson will deservedly go down in history as a great American filmmaker of the present era. His love of film is reflected in the fact that he made The Master in the luxurious and increasingly rare 70mm format. Australian audiences can view it as the filmmaker intended at Melbourne's Astor Theatre — one of the few places in Australia still committed to showing films in 70mm ­— in December. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Paul Thomas Anderson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, cults



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you Tim for a beautifully written and intelligent review - 'a pothole on the path to purity' indeed. You make the salient point of cult members wanting someone else to do their thinking for them; it's a valid criticism of cults, and possibly applies to many proponents of mainstream religions and to political organisations and philosophies also.
Barry G | 01 November 2012

"Wanting someone else to do their thinking for them".
One thing I thought about the post-Vatican II Catholic Church was that it wasn't catering any more for the people who need to be told what to do. I think many do.
Gavan | 01 November 2012

Not sure why you didn't mention Scientology, which has an especially bizarre relationship with Hollywood, and which this film serves as a not too subtle critique.
Daniel | 01 November 2012

Not sure why Scientology would deserve the cult tag any more than some aspects of Catholicism. Catholicism, through its bulimic/anorexic attitude to sex has created a perfect culture for sex abuse of minors and sexually repressed adults who seek solace in eternal salvation. Scientology might have caused many people damage, but I don't think they've been accused of raping children.
AURELIUS | 02 November 2012


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up